About Michael Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida’s largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels “Bloody Rabbit” and “Koby’s New Home.”

Parliament House gears up for an ambitious 2011

ORLANDO – Don Granatstein remembers the day 11 years ago when he first toured the property called the Parliament House. Known for being a rarity – a hotel that catered to gay men in the conservative Deep South – Granatstein wasn’t the least bit impressed. 

The Parliament House just kicked off its Winter Party on Dec. 4.

“I came and saw it and said, ‘This thing is a bloody mess,’ “ he recalled. “It was a dirty, filthy whorehouse.”

Something else stands out in his mind from that day: standing in front of the hotel on Orange Blossom Trail and listening to truck drivers speed by, yelling out the window and calling Granatsetin a “faggot.” It’s a memory he’s never forgotten.

“I’m from Toronto, the most liberal city in the world,” he said. “You had to be tolerant or you didn’t fit in with Toronto. So there I was, and I’m getting called faggot, and I’m totally insulted.”

The sorry condition of the hotel, combined with the vocal prejudice Granatstein experienced, could have been enough to send plenty of investors packing. But Granatstein – who is married to his business partner, Susan Unger – didn’t walk away. Even amid the insults and the property’s disrepair, they still saw potential. And in part, it had to do with the remarkable amount of name recognition that this little hotel had, well beyond the Orlando city limits.

“Everywhere we’d go, everyone knew the Parliament House,” he said. “I said, ‘Would you stay there,’ and they’d say, ‘Of course not, it’s a dirty, filthy whorehouse.’ “But it had a name.” 

Don Granatsetin initially thought the Parliament House was a dump. But he also knew it had a name.

Today, Granatstein and Unger make up Parliament Partners Inc., owners of the resort at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail that has not only survived, but thrived. While still a popular spot with the gay community, Granatstein and Unger have worked hard to build up other aspects of the resort’s appeal, including a restaurant, several nightclubs, and a theater that’s proven to have wide crossover appeal to straight audiences as well with hit shows like “Ladies of Eola Heights” and performances by well known celebrities. Back then, Parliament House was a place gay men could go if they wanted to find sex with other men in a conservative city. Today, the resort is a destination, regardless of sexual orientation.

“Our line,” Granatstein said, “is expect to be entertained when you come to the Parliament House.”

The Parliament House is getting into the holiday season with plenty of bright, cheerful lights.

Their biggest success to date may have been “Ladies of Eola Heights,” written by the resort’s theatrical director, Michael Wanzie, and featuring three men playing three sisters in Orlando who reunite for their father’s funeral. The play was such a big hit that it had an extended run for months, and continued drawing in huge crowds every Saturday night – and not just from gay men. Elderly women seemed particularly drawn to the seriocomic story.

“One afternoon they brought in a busload from the Villages,” Granatstein said of the development in Lake County that appeals to retirees.

It’s a journey that Granatstein and Unger almost didn’t take.

The Canadian Granatstein, who is an accountant by trade, cut his teeth in the field of gay hospitality when he helped open one of the first gay-friendly time shares in Las Vegas, through a resort that had never been able to attract families with children.

“Because there was no children, it was a natural to become gay friendly,” he said.

It also made Granatstein realize that gay consumers have money to spend and appreciate resorts that reach out to them and make them feel welcome. It’s one of the reasons why he initially entertained the idea of buying the Parliament House in the late 1990s, since it already had a solid reputation with the gay community.

But the property was in such disrepair that Granatstein wondered if it was even salvageable.
”I said, ‘This is a real stretch,’ “ he noted. “I told Susan, ‘I’ve never been afraid of a deal, and I’m afraid of this deal. I can’t make this thing make sense.’ We went, ‘How the hell do you run a place like this?’ ”

It was Unger who changed his mind, by suggesting that they buy the property and then build a central courtyard with a pool and a lounge area. Suddenly, it all made sense.

“Her idea for the courtyard changed my view,” he said.

It wasn’t easy transforming the property. Granatstein recalls having a hard time lining up financial backing from southern financial institutions, since the money was going to a gay resort.

“There’s still tons of prejudice in the world,” he said. “They would say to me, ‘I have nothing against you, but I’m a staunch Christian.’ That was the kind of thing I was running to.”
Parliament Partners Inc. cleaned up the property, created the courtyard, and kept adding on new things. Granatstein recognized that a resort with live entertainment could appeal to anyone in a city already known worldwide as a popular tourist destination, and Wanzie began expanding the shows being done at the Footlight Theatre, from original plays to off-Broadway imports to cabaret and female impersonators. Their restaurant expanded its menu and will host a big New Year’s Eve bash in a few weeks.

“We have been trying to do more modern entertainment,” Granatstein said. “We’ve definitely gone mainstream in the entertainment.”

But at the same time, Granatstein stressed that the Parliament House remains what it was in 1999.

“It will never stop being a gay resort, no matter what,” he said.

Wanzie emphasized that fact on Dec. 4, when the Parliament House hosted two special events: the Parliament House Winter Party, which the official kickoff of their courtyard lighting program, and then the debut of Wanzie’s holiday production, “A Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol.”

Just before the show started, Wanzie asked the full house audience to exit the theater in the direction of the nightclubs, leading right out to the pool bar.

“If you’ve never been to our pool bar,” Wanzie said, “it’s just past the half naked guys on the deck.”

One of those half naked guys is bartender Eddie “Funhouse” Guzman, who said working at the resort is a “phenomenal” job.

“What we do here as bartenders is we entertain,” he said, adding that Parliament House has built up a loyal following that it’s helped them cope through a recession that hasn’t spared the local hospitality industry.

Bartenders like Eddie Guzman are one reason why the Parliament House remains a popular destination with the gay community.

“There are no slow times for us,” Guzman said. “There’s always constant traffic here.”

He agreed with Granatstein that the Parliament House has a name across the country.

“I’m from New York, and I told people ‘I’m going to Orlando,’ and they said ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to the Parliament House,’ ” Guzman said.

Granatstein said their entertainment standards have gotten higher, which is one reason why they have so much crossover appeal today.

“I think to be a drag queen here, you have to work harder than in the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s entertainment-plus.”

Still, 2010 was a tough year for the resort, starting in August with media reports that the Parliament House was facing the possibility of bankruptcy. But Granatstein dismissed any notion that the resort was about to close its door.

“We’ve gone through a terrible period in that our mortgage lender went into bankruptcy,” Granatstein said. “That’s almost over now.”

A judge eventually placed the property into receivership, giving Granatstein hope that the worst of their financial troubles are behind them now, and the resort and its employees can look forward to a stronger 2011. Their plans include a renovation of the property – “Let’s call it a tune up,” Granatstein said. “The bars will get redone, and then the rooms next.”

Parliament Partners Inc. will also launch the Parliament Club in 2011, a neighboring timeshare property that allows guests to use the Parliament House facilities, plus added features like a health club and boating program.

“You don’t have to buy a timeshare, you can just join the club,” he said, adding that this was all part of his and Unger’s plans to make the Parliament House a world class destination – for gays and straights alike.

“We’re never going to be anything but what we already are, but we’re going to get better,” he said.

The Florida Tea Party is here to stay, the new chairman says

ORLANDO – In their first year trying to become a political force in Florida, the Tea Party found a candidate for Congress in an Orlando-based district, and put up an active grassroots campaign in a year when the term “Tea Party” reigned supreme.

Their candidate, Peg Dunmire, ended up losing the race for Florida’s 8th Congressional District. In a year when Republican voter turnout was heavy and the party scored record victories, Dunmire and the incumbent, Democrat Alan Grayson, lost to the GOP nominee, former state Sen. Dan Webster.

At the same time, the Florida Tea Party did score one big victory. Early on, this party devoted to conservative principles endorsed a little known businessman who was taking on what appeared to be a long shot bid for the governor’s office. Rick Scott was initially thought to be an underdog in the Republican primary, since party leaders had mostly coalesced around Attorney General Bill McCollum as their nominee. And even if Scott could somehow win the primary, the Democrats appeared ready for him with their own strong nominee — Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer.

Scott ended up defying the odds – and the odds makers’ predictions – by narrowly defeating both McCollum in the primary and Sink in the general. Today, the Tea Party is citing its early backing of Scott as a prime reason why they plan to stay united and keep building the party as a genuine third party movement in Florida.

And Dunmire has a special interest in the Tea Party’s future: she’s accepted the role of party leader from the outgoing chairman, Fred O’Neal. And Dunmire admits she has ambitious plans for the party’s future.

“I am now the new chairman of the Florida Tea Party, and I think there are several things we have to do as a party,” Dunmire said. “We need to reach out to all the Tea Party groups and make it clear we’re here to stay.”

Peg Dunmire pledges to keep the Florida Tea Party active and thriving.

The Florida Tea Party has, since the days when O’Neal first formed it, stood for conservative principles: a balanced federal budget, strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, limiting the role and size of the federal government, and turning more decisions over to the states, not the feds. And while they’re actively recruiting candidates to run for office under the party’s banner, they’re not averse to endorsing someone from the two major parties that support their views. This year, that included Scott and Marco Rubio, the successful Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.

“We supported other candidates in the Republican primary and most of them won,” said Tea Party member Doug Guetzloe. “We were instrumental in backing Rick Scott in the primary when most of the party establishment was backing Bill McCollum.”

But Dunmire stressed this doesn’t mean the Tea Party will eventually fold and become a faction of the Florida Republican Party. This is one third party movement, she said, that’s here to stay.

“They’re welcome to join us,” she said of the Sunshine State’s registered Republicans. “But we are the Florida Tea Party. That means we’re organized to put up candidates. We want to identify and nurture and grow really good candidates. We need to put a structure in place where they can learn to be good candidates. We are going to hold all the candidates accountable if they’re representing the people of Florida.”

More specifically, Dunmire said she welcomes candidates who support the Tea Party’s agenda of lower taxation, elimination of state and federal budget debts, and opposition to the high speed rail and SunRail commuter rail projects.

SunRail is a 61-mile commuter train that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then continue into Osceola County, ending at the Poinciana Industrial Park. The high speed train would run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando International Airport, then down to Walt Disney World, Lakeland, and Tampa. Both projects are meant to get motorists off congested highways like Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike and create more transportation options in a state where the car has long been king.

The Florida Tea Party remains strongly opposed to the SunRail commuter rail line.

The Tea Party has been opposed to SunRail from day one, calling it a huge waste of taxpayer money that not enough commuters are going to end up riding.

“You don’t have to have high speed rail or a SunRail system,” Guetzloe said. “We do need a mass transportation system, but we need a bus hub system to get people from one place to the next, for people who don’t have cars. Commuter rail can’t do that.” 

Doug Guetzloe does his radio show from the Tea Party's office at The Plaza in downtown Orlando.

Guetzloe noted that ballot referendums aimed at raising taxes to fund new transportation systems lost in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties in November – and Guetzloe’s group Ax The Tax was instrumental in fighting all three. He noted that Gov.-elect Scott has been a critic of SunRail and the high speed train and added, “I think Rick Scott has got the message.”

The Florida Tea Party also plans to build up its credibility after getting accused by some Republicans of being a front for Grayson. The theory was that Grayson had encouraged the Tea Party efforts – perhaps even helped the party financially – in the hopes that Dunmire would split and divide the conservative vote with Webster.

Dunmire has denied that charge from the beginning, and still does.

“We know we’re a legitimate party,” she said. “I want this to be successful. I’m a real student of organizations. You have to see how successful they are, and at the first of the year, we’ll be having organizational meetings.”

Grayson also said the notion that he encouraged Dunmire to run is ridiculous.

“It’s just another example of the right wing’s gift for making up plausible lies,” Grayson said. “I could care less which faction won. It doesn’t matter to me which faction of the Republican party employs the term Tea Party. What bothers me is the media were so willing to repeat this self-serving propagation. I didn’t give her (Dunmire) any money. Why should I? It was just the incessant drumbeat of ‘It’s alleged this, it’s alleged that.’ You’d think that after months and months of this, some facts would be tossed in.”

In fact, Grayson said the state’s GOP establishment clearly turned against the Florida Tea Party not for ideological reasons, but out of a sense of panic. The party had been hit by a well-publicized credit card scandal involving former state chairman Jim Greer, and was terrified that voters might actually view the Florida Tea Party as a legitimate alternative, he said.

“This is an utterly dysfunctional, corrupt organization – and I’m referring to the Republican Party of Florida,” Grayson said.

Dunmire said she plans to start building up the Florida Tea Party by dividing the state eight regions.

“I want to do it by region because regions are more manageable,” she said.

And she agreed with Grayson that during the campaign, the local media paid little or no attention to her efforts, so she has no interest in relying on those sources in the future.

“My experience is the media have ignored us, so we will develop our own media, and that’s also part of our strategy,” Dunmire said.

Parliament House celebrates Dickens — and celebrities — in a unique, hilarious version of “A Christmas Carol.”

ORLANDO – Imagine you’re a big star in the 1960s, winning a Tony award for playing Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and cutting 10 gold albums, snagging an academy award nomination for best supporting actress for your role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” taking home a Lifetime Achievement Award for your collective body of work on the Broadway stage.

Then along comes the 1970s, and public tastes begin to change. New faces are getting all the attention; you find yourself taking roles in “The Love Boat” on TV and in movie bombs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Pretty soon you’re doing “Hollywood Squares” next to Big Bird – is there any more desperate sign of a career that’s tanking?

If you’re Carol Channing, you might just leap at the opportunity to take the lead role in “A Christmas Carol” if it brings you back to the stage, and does it in one of the world’s great tourism Mecca’s: Orlando. So when Channing learns that Ashton Kutcher had to drop out of the lead playing Scrooge, you zip down to Orlando in record time.

There’s just one problem. Standing on stage before a full house at the Footlight Theatre on Orange Blossom Trail, Channing gets a bit confused, and finally has to ask: “So this isn’t Epcot? And we’re not doing the Candlelight Processional?”

Not even close. Channing flew down to Orlando to perform in “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol: A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle!” at none other than the Parliament House, the gay resort where drag shows, campy humor and muscular, half naked bartenders reign supreme. Channing’s career may never be the same.

Michael Wanzie's gift to the holidays is his new comedical production, "Wanzie's Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol."

Tis the season for holiday productions, and it’s amazing to see how durable Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge has been since it was first published in 1843. There are no fewer than 11 different versions of “A Christmas Carol” being produced across Central Florida theaters right now, and in a fine testament to Mr. Dickens, the productions are remarkably diverse.

Theatre Downtown offers a very faithful version of the tale featuring a large cast, while “Dickens by Candlelight: A Christmas Carol” at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts reduces it to a cast of three, and the Southern Winds Theatre presents David A. McElroy playing every role in “A One-Man Christmas Carol” at the Starlight Video & Coffee shop in Winter Park. Two Lake County theaters – The Bay Street Players in Eustis and the Moonlight Players in Clermont – offer competing versions of the comedy “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” has got to be one of the most unique, because it reinvents the Dickens tale in a variety of ways: gay campy humor, burlesque show, drag performances, and, most entertainingly, as a hilarious send up of Hollywood and Broadway celebs. Conceived by the Parliament House’s resident theatrical genius, Michael Wanzie, this is “A Christmas Carol” performed by the biggest names in gay-friendly entertainment – Liza Minnelli, Cher, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand, etc. – and begs the question: if Wanzie really could line them all up for a star-studded performance of “A Christmas Carol,” could they play it straight and leave the ham for Christmas day supper?

The answer, not surprisingly, is: don’t count on it.

Wanzie, who is as funny an actor as he is a writer, happily grants himself a lead role in this show, playing himself as the narrator of “A Christmas Carol”; he also becomes a sort of referee to the lineup of spotlight-hogging stars. Stung by the disappointment of losing Kutcher as his lead, Wanzie nevertheless is happy to accept Channing as a substitute, although the two are soon clashing over stage direction and character development. But neither one seems quite prepared for just how zany this version of Scrooge is about to get when the casting includes Marlee Matlin as Bob Cratchit and Liza Minnelli as Tiny Tim.  Honestly now, how many earlier productions of “A Christmas Carol” have given you Bob Cratchit swearing in sign language or Tiny Tim lamenting all those failed marriages to gay men?

Part of this production’s charm is Wanzie’s increasingly angry reactions to his hammy performers, who glide off book every chance they get, and to the terrific ensemble work being done here. It’s amazing to think of how good the Footlight Theatre’s regular performers are, including Miss Sammy, who does some spot-on imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball, Streisand and Joan Crawford, lip syncing to some of their well known hits.

Carol Lee, also known as the official guest hostess of the Footlight Players Show, is a riot as Carol Channing, looking alternately thrilled to be on stage and befuddled at how increasingly bizarre this production gets – although, in the true spirit of “The show must go on,” Channing rolls with every bit of craziness tossed at her.

Gidget Galore grabs some big laughs as Liza, but it would be hard to top Doug Ba’aser, who is side-splittingly funny in the near silent role of Marlee Matlin. Just his expressions alone brought on so much laughter from the audience that it would be hard to imagine this show without him.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” is a typical Wanzie grab-bag of successful elements – music, dancing, wild humor, impersonations, truly tasteless gags – all done at a speed that keeps you glued to that stage through every second of Scrooge’s …. er, Carol Channing’s …. deliriously wacky adventures. It’s sort of a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” soundtrack for the Parliament House’s ongoing entertainment efforts, ideal for those who say Bah! Humbug to taking the holidays too seriously.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, the final performance. The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail at the Parliament House. Tickets are $12 in advance (by logging on to www.wanzie.com) or $14 at the door, and $10 in advance or $12 at the door for the Dec. 20 industry night show.

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